With Halloween approaching, it is hard to say who is more excited: kids eager to go trick-or-treating or businesses looking to explore frighteningly creative marketing strategies.

In the restaurant industry, which has a natural tie-in to the food-centric, sugar-fueled occasion, many companies are offering some sort of Halloween promotion. For example, Onesto Pizzeria & Trattoria in St. Louis is offering a “pumpkin pie,” a white pizza with roasted pumpkins, bacon, and goat cheese. Other companies are simply offering a Halloween discount on their year-round menus.

But in an attempt to take advantage of the huge consumer spending for Halloween—almost $6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation—other restaurants have seized the opportunity to galvanize their customer base.

Probably the most notable Halloween promotion is Chipotle’s “Dress to Kill” fundraiser. For Halloweens past, the Denver-based company gave away free food to customers who came into locations dressed in a “Boorito” costume. This year, Chipotle, whose “Food With Integrity” tagline alludes to its use of quality ingredients, wants its customers to dress up as “a horrifying processed food product.”

Customers who visit a Chipotle location after 6 p.m. on Oct. 31 dressed as, say, a Twinkie or a fish stick, will get a burrito, bowl, salad, or an order of tacos for $2. The proceeds from the promotion (up to $1 million) will go to British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” which seeks to steer Americans away from processed foods.

A promotional video on Chipotle’s website features Oliver, in a chicken nugget costume, and company founder Steve Ells, dressed as a container of dipping sauce, discussing the horrors of processed food. “You’re disgusting,” Ells says to Oliver in the video. “You’re disgusting,” Oliver replies.

Chipotle CMO Mark Crumpacker says the idea to partner with Oliver came after a meeting between the chef and Ells in London over the summer.

“What [Oliver] is trying to do in people’s home and schools, which is to introduce whole, unprocessed foods and cooking again, is really what Steve is trying to do in the fast food world,” he says. 

The challenge was finding a way to connect a fundraiser to Halloween. 

“The idea came up, ‘What’s more scary than a snack cake filled with artificial ingredients?’” Crumpacker says.

So far, the promotion appears to be a marketing coup, having garnered positive media coverage and good customer feedback, which is not a bad reaction to a $2 price hike over the former Boorito campaign.

Chipotle may even turn a small profit off of the promotion. Last year’s Boorito giveaway lured half a million tortilla-wrapped customers into Chipotle locations around the country. If more come in this year, the company will raise more than $1 million, the fundraiser ceiling.  

Fatz Cafe, which has 47 locations in the Southeast, is another restaurant using Halloween to scare up some funds for charity. Cafe Enterprises, the restaurant’s parent company, joined forces with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in an effort to raise money to fight cancer and other diseases. 

Children from St. Jude decorated the walls of participating Fatz Cafe locations in South Carolina and Georgia for Halloween. Guests can add to the decoration by purchasing a paper pumpkin for $1 to hang inside the restaurants. All proceeds from these “philanthropic pumpkins” go toward funding patient care and cancer research at St. Jude.

Chipotle, whose “Food With Integrity” tagline alludes to its use of quality ingredients, wants its customers to dress up as “a horrifying processed food product.”

While some restaurants are attempting to leverage Halloween spending for a good cause, other restaurants are embracing Halloween’s darker side. Home Run Inn, for example, a frozen pizza line with nine Chicagoland restaurant locations, is giving away $2,500 and a pizza party to the winner of a horror film contest. Contestants have to submit a two-minute video featuring a box of Home Run Inn pizza. 

This is the third annual Home Run Inn Halloween Video Contest, and in the past it has strengthened and expanded the company’s brand. During last year’s contest, the company’s website had 25,000 unique visitors, and, between first- and second-round ballots, the contest garnered almost 400,000 votes.   

The contest has been a marketing success, says marketing director Gina Bolger, because it encourages a high level of interaction between Home Run Inn customers and the company’s product. And then there is the possibility that one of the video submissions will go viral, something that would benefit Home Run Inn as much as the contestant. 

What all of these promotions point out is that Halloween presents a unique opportunity for effective restaurant marketing, whether scary, silly, charitable, or a combination of all three. While Christmas remains the year’s top occasion in terms of spending, Halloween gives it a run for its money when it comes to creativity.

“This is one of the times of year where we get our most creative and have the most fun,” says Jaimie Flagg, general manager of Blue Chip Brand Marketing, which works on the Home Run Inn video contest. “We get to think out of the box.” 

Charitable Giving, Web Exclusives, Chipotle, Fatz Cafe